Moments after the final horn blew Monday night and The Boils' "Orange And The Black" began serenading a joyous Wells Fargo Center, it was hard not to wonder if this was an instance of What Could Have Been, or even What Probably Should Have Been, if only.
If only Carter Hart was here from the onset. If only injuries didn't force the Flyers to cycle through five goaltenders before turning to their prized prospect. If only 33-year-old Brian Elliott's offseason surgically-repaired lower body held up and everything went according to plan. But here we are, and this is where the Flyers are.
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The Flyers on Monday rung off their season-high fourth straight win, a 3-1 decision over the Jets (see observations). It served as a reminder of just how much has changed in the seven weeks since the Jets mopped the dreary streets of Winnipeg with the Flyers, the second game of a five-game trip that began with a 6-2 win in Buffalo and ended with Dave Hakstol's firing.
In reality, the Flyers are so far down in the standings that it's damn near impossible for them to make the playoffs. It's easy to let the mind wander, after a team effort like Monday's, after another impressive outing from Hart, where was this three months ago?
Goaltending, as historically decayed as it's been, wasn't the No. 1 reason the Flyers fired their general manager, then their AGM and assistant coach and then, eventually, Hakstol. But it is the chief reason why they're showing glimpses of their potential.
Hart has stabilized the Flyers' crease and his performance Monday was just another in a string of games that has us no longer questioning whether he belongs. He does.
"If I'm surprised? Yes, I am," Claude Giroux said. "You're not supposed to be a 20-year-old and play the way he's playing. … I don't think he knows how to panic."
The latest chapter of The Legend of Carter Hart entails a 31-save showing against a Jets team that averages 3.41 goals, sixth best in the NHL. Hart allowed one goal Monday, and it was a blemish that no goalie stood a chance at stopping. There were a bushel of quality saves from Hart, perhaps none better than his post-to-post robbery of Mark Scheifele shorthanded near the end of the first period.
Hart, after his 13th career start, sports a .922 save percentage and is the first Flyers goalie to record a four-game winning streak before his 21st birthday. Since Jan. 5, he owns an NHL-most 260 saves, a 2.39 goals-against average and a 5-2-1 record.
"I feel comfortable at this level," Hart said. "I think after the first couple of games, my nerves were just crazy. After that, I kind of just realized, ‘Hey, it's another game. The boards are the same, the ice is the same, just got to go out and play.'"
Some things are worth the wait. Some myths you have to confirm with your own eyes. Some things are hard to screw up unless you're Edmonton. It's easy to look at what has unfolded over the past four months and say Hart should have been here since Game 1.
That's not how this season has played out. Hart very well may have needed those 17 games with the Phantoms before his NHL call-up. He figured out the AHL quickly, and by circumstance, found himself in South Philadelphia faster than anyone anticipated.
With the Flyers attempting to figure out their identity going forward into the next stage of whatever this is, Hart is oozing with confidence, and it's impacting everyone else.
It's as if when the stakes get higher, there's another level inside of Hart that breaks free. There remains so much untapped potential that it's exciting to see what's to come.
We keep telling ourselves there will be bumps in the road. There sure will be. It's part of the process. But 13 games into Hart's young NHL career, the hype that followed him in junior, on the international stage, in Lehigh Valley, seems very real.
Hart might actually be the goalie that sheds the Flyers' label of Goaltending Graveyard.
Only time will tell.
"To be honest, probably better," said Phil Varone, who played with Hart in Lehigh Valley. "It's not easy for anyone to transition to pro, especially for a goaltender. He's been phenomenal. It's more than what I saw in the American League. He deserves to be here."
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